How can it be an addiction?


Gambling: Don’t roll the dice with this behavior
By Michael Suarez*

During a recent training where I was discussing the subject of helping problem gamblers, a participant scoffed and muttered: “Geesh, let em help themselves!” While I didn’t appreciate this disdain, I honestly did appreciate the blunt expression of his contrary opinion. It made the moment tense and a little unpleasant, but it also produced some intrigue, raised an opportunity to further clarify our topic, and almost certainly voiced an opinion that at least a few other people had (and have).
Outrageous, addiction-inspired behaviors are often hard to fathom or identify with. This is why so many of us genuinely ask questions like: “How could they do that to themselves and/or their family?” Or “Why don’t they just stop?”
These type of questions are very understandable, especially when directed toward topics like problem gambling, in part because gambling addiction is what is called a “behavioral addiction.” That is, unlike struggles with cigarettes, drugs or alcohol, problem gambling does not have a corresponding chemical basis, but is triggered strictly by a specific behavior. Another part of the reason that problem gambling is sometimes scoffed at is that although compulsive gambling has been formally recognized and classified as a psychiatric disorder similar to many biochemical addictions, this formal acknowledgment hasn’t trickled down into popular culture.
Because of this, several common-sense questions tend to arise and remain in our minds. How can someone be addicted when there is no substance to be addicted to? Why do some people get addicted when so many others don’t?
An answer to the doubt and questions of legitimacy could begin with a basic look at the thriving study of neuroscience. Brain scans and neurological research now provide an increasingly accepted basis for understanding human behavior. So, when we hear or read that such scientific studies authoritatively explain the how and why of substance addiction, many of us find it easier to sympathize with those dealing with it. But what is less commonly known is that the very same field of study tells us that gambling is able to produce a physical reaction strikingly similar to many addictive substances. That is, the type of research that describes how drugs and alcohol produce supremely pleasurable dopamine surges in our brains also inform us that these neurological reactions can be triggered by behaviors such as eating, sex or gambling.

But do we really need to be convinced by brain research?
What I mean is that neuroscience is awesome but it is also, ultimately, a verification of what common observation and reflection tell us. Here, I mean that as we observe and reflect and analyze (making sure to get past the surface pleasures typically present at the start of a disorder), we naturally transition from the question of “how could they do this to themselves?” to the closely related “why would they do this to themselves?” And when we ask this latter question we find ourselves realizing the obvious truth that no one would intentionally invite the loss of their money, family, respect and job, or freely choose to take on enormous debt or borrow from dangerous loan sharks or spend their children’s college fund on a slot machine.
And if we are willing to take a look into our own lives, I’d predict we can easily find some comparable issues-with many of these being behavioral-based struggles where we see the decisions of our will defied by some other part of ourselves. In fact, I’d guess that it is hard to find someone who isn’t struggling with some behavior that is, at least, a close relative of addiction. It may be the struggle to follow healthy habits or balance out workaholism or control anger or overcome depression or express our feelings to others, but it sure seems like we all have something.
The fact that so many of us can personally recognize these struggles tells us that a widely recognized part of our mysterious human experience involves the effort to successfully manage ourselves and become who or what we want to be. And when we recognize this we can use our shared experience to recognize and empathize with the struggle of others.
And this, more or less, is how I answered the scoffing student—there are many motivations for helping others, but I consider one of the simplest to be the empathy experienced when we ask the question: Don’t we all need help sometimes?
*Author Michael Suarez is the Program Director for the Queens Center for Excellence in Problem Gambling, a program of the New York Council on Problem Gambling. More information can be found at


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